Reel Answers to Reel Questions

The microfilm in question. Photo by Stephen Littrell.

Summer is the time for housekeeping around the Libraries, and much like undertaking the reorganization of one’s own closet, an occasional unexpected discovery occurs that either provokes nostalgia or rouses curiosity.

The latter was the case when staff at the Library Storage Facility at the Pickle Research Campus in north Austin recently came across more than 400 reels of microfilm which appeared to document the entire card catalog of the Libraries through images of each individual record.

Sample card from the catalog microfilm. Photo by Stephen LIttrell.Evidence dated the media from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, but none of current Libraries staff had a clue as to the reason that an entire catalog of just over 2 million volumes (at the time) would’ve been recorded in such a way.

Enter the institutional memory of a loyal retiree class.

Associate Director for Collections and Technical Services Robin Fradenburgh put out the call to a cadre of ex libris stalwarts to see if they could unpack the Riddle of the Reels.

“We are calling on our dearly missed retired colleagues to help us with this mystery.  We have about 400+ of these reels of film of catalog cards.  Stephen (Littrell) looked at three of them to see if they had dates…one didn’t, one looked like it was 1964 and the other was 1973.  Did we used to make films of our catalog cards as back up and do you see any reason we need to keep them?  Ben (Rodriguez) says they were added to LSF very early on.”

Thanks….none of our institutional memories go back that far.

Robin”

There are no guarantees when seeking an answer to a 40-year old question, but the former librarians didn’t miss a beat.

“Robin,

Of course, I wasn’t there before 1980, but when at the University of Pennsylvania, it was the year 1968 of upheaval of student protests, campus takeovers, etc. that the Penn Library experienced some incursions in which trays of catalog cards were dumped on the floor helter-skelter (as well as books being swept off stack shelves).

Those attacks led several academic libraries, including Penn, to microfilm either their catalogs or shelflists.

Bob”

University Freedom Movement rally, UT campus, 1967. Photo from “The Rag.” (linked)

And in further validation,

“I’m remembering a special project to microfilm the card catalog as a precautionary measure in the wake of student unrest on a number of college campuses.  The project may well have gone on for some time, but card microfilming was never a routine back-up procedure that we did for years on end.

Al”

So, the mystery solved and a lost history unearthed and passed along, the summer cleaning continues, and we’re reminded that technology has made preserving the Libraries’ catalog just a little less daunting than it used to be.

Thanks to Libraries alumni Bob Stewart and Al Rogers for bringing their respective knowledge and memory to bear.

2 thoughts on “Reel Answers to Reel Questions”

  1. A copy of the shelf list reels was also stored in the Benson Latin American Collection as part of its microfilm holdings. I don’t know if they are still there or not.

  2. So, what will be the fate of this photographed shelf list? Is the actual card catalog still being stored at PCL on the 6th floor? These are historical treasures, in my opinion. Hope they are treated as such.

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